The Southern Standard, by Lisa Hobbs —
How many elected officials does it take to break the Sunshine Law? Two. One to state their opinion and one who changes how they vote.
Breaking the Sunshine Law could be that simple, or it could fall into a gray area that’s more difficult to see.
During Tuesday night’s Sunshine Law session for McMinnville officials, attorney Susan Marttala, a member of the city’s legal council, described the law as a gray area that isn’t supposed to stop the normal process of law making. However, it is designed to prevent decision making in secrecy and let the “sun shine” on all government activities, hence the name given to the legislation.
According to Marttala, it is legal for officials to state their opinions to one another. However, if a debate about that opinion begins that ultimately changes someone’s vote, then the law has been broken.
As suggested by council, it is best to hold information-gathering conversations only. If officials keep with information gathering and do not try to sway official votes or opinions, they won’t slip into the gray area.
Officials can also gather information from others. Although it’s legal, this situation may have led to some discontent among city officials when some were not aware Alderman Bobby Kirby was talking to city administrator candidate David Rutherford.
“What bothers me was I found out after the fact that discussions had been held with somebody I didn’t know was even under consideration,” said Alderman Patti Nunley.
Defending his actions, Kirby said he had mentioned it at least twice during discussions in committee meetings. He had informed Mayor Royce Davenport of what he wanted to do and had asked legal council if he could proceed before any discussions were held with Rutherford.
Also, it is perfectly legal for officials to meet at a function, get-together or restaurant and talk as long as they are not talking about government business.
The session did shed some light on one situation. Elected officials had believed that as long as they didn’t sit on the same committee, they could hold discussions about city business being held in other committees and that Davenport could hold discussions with other members because he does not sit on a committee.
Not so, said council. Decisions that will eventually come before the board cannot be discussed with any two members, including Davenport, because those discussions could influence which way the vote is going to go.
Council also warned about avoiding gray areas that look like the law has been broken because of public perception.
“If you take a vote and there is no discussion, then it looks like you might have discussed it before the meeting,” said Marttala. “At least that’s what the public perceives happened.”
Because there are committees that present measures to the board, most items are discussed beforehand in that committee. However, if there is no discussion during the vote, and someone comes to the board meeting and not the committee meetings, the vote looks suspicious.
Per this session, there will be one change in public notices. Currently, public notices are given within three days of the meeting and say which committee is meeting with the date, time and a non-descriptive list of what will be discussed. All notices will now have enough information for a person to decide if they want to attend.
When in doubt about where the gray area starts, go with your gut feeling, according to Marttala.
“You’ll know it when you see it,” said Marttala regarding the gray area. “If you have a concern that you are violating the Sunshine Law, then you probably are. If you are concerned, it’s probably a good idea to step back and think about it.”
If a discussion does take place that might violate the Sunshine Law, the law allows a remedy. The members who violated must, during a public meeting, restate what was said. If the situation isn’t remedied, any decision reached based on a Sunshine Law violation is void.